Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Akira Kurosawa.
The Movie King. The Emperor. Even at their height, words fail to capture the towering legacy of a master like Akira Kurosawa. Growing up with a movie fanatic father, the writer/director was educated with thousands of silent films, and he would go on to make perhaps more masterpieces than any other singular filmmaking force.
With Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, Ran, Rashomon, and many more, he became immortal.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who had the heart of a child and the mind of a genius.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Akira Kurosawa
1. Get Greedy
“Movie directors, or should I say, people who create things, are very greedy and they can never be satisfied. That’s why they keep on working. I’ve been able to work for so long because I think, ‘Next time, I’ll make something good.’”
Who says perfectionism is a bad thing? Perhaps there more to this than simple greed, but the Emperor is pointing out a mindset for excellence that stands as the first step in making sure your creative output is the best it can be. Just as no screenwriter I’ve spoken to has ever said they didn’t care for another shot at re-writing a script, there’s a natural sense of imperfection and incompleteness to any project because the cameras have to roll, the editors have to get their hands on the film, and the audience has to see the end result at some point.
Aspiring filmmakers have the ugly luxury of not having a deadline, so they can afford to take another pass on that screenplay. Of course, money becomes a factor in getting one more shot or one more cut, but the grand principle here is that you can’t punch the clock at 5 and call it an early day. Work to make the film as good as it can be and know that you can also do better on the next one.
In other words: the bad sleep well.
2. Story Comes First
“The most important part of my film is the scenario for without a good script, actors are not much use.”
Again, do you have some time to polish that script just one more time? This fundamental truth about movies is often (maybe because it’s so obvious) pushed aside, especially when special effects and famous faces seem to engage audiences. Even the big studios are beginning to relearn this powerful lesson (Battleship anyone?) because there’s nothing like a stellar story to send audiences out of the theater in a rush to tell their friends.
3. Aim For a Masterpiece Every Time
4. Don’t Let Success Go To Your Head
“What I promise you is that from now on I will work as hard as I can at making movies, and maybe by following this path I will receive an understanding of the true essence of cinema and earn this award.”
That’s what Kurosawa said when earning the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy. It puts a few things in perspective, doesn’t it?
5. Keep It Simple
“A truly good movie is enjoyable, too. There’s nothing complicated about it.”
Of course, it’s easier to say that when you’re a technically gifted director with a great ear for dialogue, but there’s a kernel of easy truth in it. Kurosawa’s movies usually have a simple core to them that a bit of chaos tends to flow out of. Even when working with Shakespearean texts, his characters’ motivations are usually singular in focus. It also might be a better task to try to deconstruct the human condition in thirty movies instead of just one.
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What we’ve learned about filmmaking
There’s a great emphasis on the pursuit of excellence with many of his interviews and statements. With some, that might seem like false humility, but with Kurosawa continually putting out peerless work while promising that he would really do better with the next one, it’s fairly clear that he had a Jiro-like outlook on mastering a craft.
So maybe some of this can seem redundant, or worse, out of reach, but the biggest lesson here is that this kind of talk comes only with a sturdy basis in practice. The words mean nothing if time isn’t spent learning, getting your hands dirty, and gaining one more centimeter on perfection. The tirelessness that shows through in all of his movies is Kurosawa’s true instruction manual.
But wearing a jacket that says “It is Wonderful to Create!” might not be a bad idea either.